The Distance Between Them and Me

When I woke up on the last day of November, I hardly expected to end my day looking at my face on a television screen. Yet, there I was. At aproximately 11:50 p.m. and for less than a second, television viewers tuned to CBS could see me on the tube sitting in the front row of David Letterman’s audience that night. And how did I achieve my 15 milliseconds of fame?

Perhaps it starts four years ago when I decide to launch myself into the media world. That year I choose to attend journalism school at Chicago’s Northwestern University. A decision, I guess, which later pays off in terms of landing a nice interning assignment at People Magazine. A role, I suppose, leading to me becoming a subject for an upcoming Playboy Magazine piece. An article, I dare say, that forces me to use my lunch break that day to do a photo shoot in Times Square. And the location, in which, a David Letterman intern approaches and questions whether I’m a fan. An odd sequence of events to become such a media darling, I now realise.

“Do you like David Letterman?” he asks.

Sure, I sort of lie. Privately, I think Letterman is all right, but Conan is better. The page tells us that he has extra passes because of a last-minute cancellation, and that if we can answer a couple of trivia questions, we will be able to get free tickets for that night’s show. First question: Who is Biff Henderson? Uhhh… Fortunately, my friend knows he’s a “stagehand” on the show. Second question: Where is Paul Shaffer from? Ooh, good, an easy one. “Canada,” I say. Great, he responds. He puts our names on a list, and tells us that we can pick up our tickets later for the 4:30 performance. We ask who is on the show, but he will only guarantee us that it will be a “hot” show.

Of course, everywhere seems to be a “hot” spot nowadays in New York. Maybe it’s because I’ve been working for People for the last few months, but it seems I can hardly move anymore without bumping elbows with some celebrity. Last week, it was Woody Harrelson at the lounge Sway. The other day, it was Nicolas Cage on the street filming a new movie. And the day I visited the Letterman show, it was Martha Stewart who invaded my personal space. It seems the distance between the stars and star-gazers is not as considerable as it once was.

That day at the office, as we were preparing a cover story on Martha Stewart, Martha gossip filled the air. One editor tells me the details concerning her failed first marriage. Another tells me about how badly she treats her employees. And the reporter sitting right next to me is in charge of fact-checking every minute detail of Martha’s life. Needless to say, by the time I leave the office for my tickets, I feel grateful to have escaped the Queen Homemaker’s presence. But of course, I’m unaware of the identity of Guest #2 on the Late Show with David Letterman that night.

I meet my friends at 4 o’clock to pick up the tickets. We joke with the staff, and gently chide them about being on television. One young female staffer “guarantees” that we will be on TV too. We smile and take her name down for for later beratement. But come 4:30, our hosts take us aside and tell us they want us in the front, because we “have personality.”

Before entering, the whole audience gets the pep talk from staffers.

Ever wonder why audiences laugh at all of Letterman’s jokes, even the lame ones? I can testify from experience: They are programmed this way. We are repeatedly told it is “our enthusiasm and laughter what makes this show so great.” Dave, we are told, personally responds to a good audience. They even teach us how to cheer, how to laugh, and to avoid “wolf yells” that upset the microphones.

Finally, they let us in, and my friends and I take our positions in the front row. We are a bit overwhelmed. We are less than an arm’s length away from the stage. We can almost feel the spotlight.

The band comes onto the stage. That Canadian comes last. Finally, Letterman arrives — looking very funny in pants that are hiked half way up his chest — to “warm up” the crowd. He asks the crowd where they are from, looking specifically for anyone from his home region. He then takes a question from the audience.

“Can I sit in your chair?” a guy yells out. The crowd laughs. Letterman responds, giving a joke I must have heard a thousand times before. “Of course not,” he says. “Do I come to your house and ask to take a shower?” Unfortunately, the pre-show ends rather abruptly. The producer waves Letterman off, and the main announcer introduces the show. We all yell — as we’ve been conditioned to do — when the names “Jenny McCarthy,” “Martha Stewart,” “The Foo Fighters,” “Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra,” and “David Letterman” are announced.

Right away, I notice the disadvantage of sitting in the front row: The camera crew blocks your view. You pretty much have three options: You can watch the backs of the camera operator and the cue-card man, and try to sneak a peak at Dave. You can watch the action unfold on the television screens sitting in front of the stage. Or you can watch what goes on during the taping that’s not in the broadcast (e.g. what the band members look like when Dave tells a bad joke). I try to do all three.

David Letterman, who sometimes gets credit for ushering in the age of postmodern irony, looks sharp tonight — now that his suit jacket is on, and his pants are at his waist. He gives a monologue, and we laugh of course. He then introduces his first bit. “Ever watch those biography shows like on VH1 and E?” he asks us. We clap our approval. “We thought it would be fun to take a person off the street and do one on him.”

Letterman tells a camera crew to enter the pizzeria next door. A goatee-sporting, pizza-chomping man becomes Dave’s target. Letterman asks him a few questions, and then gets him to utter the phrase, “I love pizza!” Letterman invites the unsuspecting man into the studio and on stage. When the man arrives — not before tripping on the stairs — Letterman unleashes his surprise: A mockumentary of the bailiff from the old sitcom Night Court, who wastes away his career and cash on a pizza addiction. Included in the video are testimonies from Kathy Lee Gifford, Johnny Depp, MC Hammer, and of course David Letterman himself. The man from the pizzeria, his trip, and his “I love pizza” exclamation, are the punchlines to this video montage. The man, a good sport, retires out the door in which he came in.

Next up is Jenny McCarthy who shocks the audience with her new look — black hair. She does look as great in person as she does on television, but I am having more fun looking at the band members as they strike their “dirty old men” poses for the camera. (The producers only show a short glimpse on the broadcast, but this is the show’s true highlight.)

During a commercial break, Martha Stewart sets up. She looks very angry and is wearing a weird yellow Gore-Tex coat (it is cold in the studio). After the commercial, however, she comes back onto stage wearing a nice and proper outfit. She does her bit. David does his. But I’m starting to get a bit bored. Don’t tell me I’ll just be watching tonight?

I guess that’s when I get on television. Nothing too special, I suppose. The camera sweeps over the crowd. It lovingly lingers on the man sitting in the front row. Later that night, I watch that man on my television screen. He seems to be looking down at the television monitor in front of him, though.

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Eric Gardner is a Chicago-based writer. He is an amateur philosopher, and likes to wax on endlessly about the postmodern culture we all live in. He hopes to one day be like everyone else. Eric can be reached at [email protected].